Geetanjali Shree's 'Ret Samadhi': Celebrating the power of language
In hindsight, this book puts myriad themes related to a woman’s identity at centre stage, all while challenging existing narratives of Partition literature
IN May this year, Indian novelist and writer Geetanjali Shree made literary history. Her Hindi novel Ret Samadhi—translated into English as Tomb of Sand by American translator Daisy Rockwell—won the 2022 International Booker Prize. Though Shree’s fifth novel—her other works are Mai, Tirohit, Hamara Shahar Us Baras, and Khali Jagah—this is the first book originally written in an Indian language to receive the prestigious honour. In an attempt to celebrate this achievement that Shree believes is “a great moment for Hindi and other South Asian languages”, city-based Teamwork Arts—a production company that curates the Jaipur Literature Festival—and ILF Samanvay—India Habitat Centre’s (IHC) Indian language festival—organised a talk with the 65-year-old writer at the Stein Auditorium, IHC, on Tuesday evening. At the event, Shree was in conversation with journalist and writer Poonam Saxena.
The kaleidoscopic nature of literature
Set in North India, Ret Samadhi is a family saga that sheds light on the life of an 80-year-old woman who travels to Pakistan in an attempt to revisit and resolve the emotional trauma of the experiences of Partition. In the process, the reader sees her reassess her various roles—she unravels what it means to be a mother, a daughter, and a woman. By following the journey of this octogenarian, Shree also highlights the fact that life is meant to be celebrated till one’s last breath. “We have enough evidence that life is to be enjoyed until the end. There’s irony in this because there is lust for life and the body is becoming frail. The book brings out that irony with humour.”
In hindsight, this book puts myriad themes related to a woman’s identity at centre stage, all while challenging existing narratives of Partition literature. On being asked if Shree would attribute a single theme to the book, she shared, “I am not keen on finding out what the main thing of my novel is. It is not just about the Partition, the Partition of India-Pakistan, but it is about many partitions that we experience in our life—of age, gender, of human beings, and the environment.”
Exploring rhythm in words
The book has an interesting and rhythmic use of words that make it an absorbing (and for many, a challenging) read. Talking about such phrasing, one that Saxena deemed “extraordinary”, Shree shared, “Language is an entity by itself. It is not something that has to be used as a vehicle to say something. It is the power of language that takes over and makes me write in a certain way.” She further mentioned that her experience in theatre also helped her gauge the experiments she could do with language. Shree follows a consistent style in her book with a conscious wordplay that is spread across the narrative. Commenting on the same, “Shabdo me ek fluidity hoti hi hai, ye toh hum unhe fix kar dete hain (Words have an innate fluidity, it is us who restrict them).”
Mentioning how the International Booker Prize has helped direct attention towards languages that were once considered outside the worldview, Shree concluded that, in the future, one must pay heed to other authors who are writing in South Asian languages as well. This hour-long conversation was followed by a book signing with the audience.